Wine, Recession & the Curse of the Unknown Unknowns

 

The coronavirus pandemic continues to gain momentum, causing serious economic disruption around the world. The wine business has experienced a number of important impacts already and the future is uncertain.

Booming Sales … for Now

In the immediate run, retail wine sales are booming in many regions and through on-line vectors as consumers stock up on wine along with toilet paper in anticipation of possible store closures and enforced isolation.  How much this will turn out to be an increase in wine consumption versus a change in the timing of purchases is unclear. But retailers are happy for the business in either case.

It has been inspiring to see the wine industry rising to the challenging of consumers who suddenly find their usual wine purchasing patterns disrupted. Like you, we have received many offers of discounted shipping and home delivery. Tasting rooms have responded in many ways including virtual wine tastings. These direct sales are especially important for wineries that need to replace lost on-premise accounts as bars and restaurants shut their doors for now.

The learning curve is steep in this new environment and not everyone is equally successful, but we are making progress. Which is a good thing, since the need to adapt to new consumption patterns will not end when the “all clear” alarm sounds. Many buyers will revert to their old patterns, but some won’t, at least not immediately, and the current period is a good time to learn more about what that uncertain future might look like.

A number of significant economic surveys of the direct and indirect economic impacts of coronavirus on the wine industry have appeared. Rabobank released two reports late last week (here are links to the first and second reports) that I find especially useful and recommend to you.20200321_cuk1280

What’s Ahead for the Wine Economy?

What’s ahead for the wine economy? One way to think of the problem is in terms of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous taxonomy of knowledge (see video above) which divided the world into known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. It sounds crazy when you hear it the first time, but it kinda makes sense.

There are a lot of economic known unknows (things we know we don’t know) for the wine economy (and the economy in general) right now, which explains why financial markets are so jittery. Three important factors are wealth effects, income effects, and attenuated wine consumption occasions.

We know that wine will be affected by the vast decrease in wealth that the plunging financial markets have produced. Some investment portfolios have lost 20 to 30 percent or more of their value since the start of the year. If that is what happened to your retirement account and you are at or nearing retirement age, it is not an easily-dismissed problem. Luxury purchases are likely to be put on hold and for many consumers wine is a luxury. Holding on to wine club members is going to be a challenge and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The wealth effect is especially critical because it is likely to disproportionately impact baby boomers, who have been the bedrock of the wine economy for many years.

Helicopters and Bazookas

We know that wine demand will be affected by falling incomes and rising unemployment.  New unemployment claims are surging as parts of the economy slow or come to a halt. Some sectors are expanding — this is a good time to find a job at Amazon.com, Walmart, and — at least in Washington state — at the unemployment benefits office itself, which is staffing up to meet the rising need.

A wide range of estimates of the broad economic effects have been published. Most suggest that first-quarter GDP in the United States will be slightly negative when the dust clears and that the second quarter will be much worse — somewhere between a 10% and 20% decline. That would be the biggest one-quarter fall ever. Job losses could be as high as 5 million in the U.S. Incredible.

Estimates for other countries are also negative, reflecting the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic collapse it has induced. Economic conditions in Italy are much worse than in the United States and will strain the ability of both Italian and European policy-makers to respond effectively, especially as the crisis grows in Spain as well and the contagion continues.

There is some good news in that government stimulus packages are on the way in the U.S. and elsewhere to try to offset falling demand. But much damage can be done in the short run and it is difficult to effectively target aid, hence the resort to Europe’s “bazooka” the American “helicopter money.” Thus far, it must be said, the financial markets seem to believe that the crisis is bigger than the responses proposed.

Finally, we know that, since wine demand is conditioned by the occasions people have to consume it, the sudden decrease in available occasions (bar and restaurant closures, regulations limiting private gatherings, etc.) will have a big impact irrespective of wealth and income effects.

The travel sector is one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus and that will impact wine, too. A lot of alcohol is consumed at airports and on cruise ships. That’s not going to happen very soon. New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov did his best to address the occasion deficit last week in a column that told readers it is OK to drink alone if you are forced to self-isolate. Virtual cheers!

The Cost of Uncertainty

We know that these forces will hit the wine economy, but we don’t know exactly how, how much, when, and when things will turn around.  That’s a lot to not know, so it is no surprise that the uncertainty alone is having an impact. It is hard to make confident decisions when the risks can’t be calculated.

I recently received an email from Anthony Bozzano of Bozzano & Co., a San Luis Obispo- based company focused on sales and sourcing of bulk wine (similar to traditional bulk wine brokers), as well as custom brand development for national retail. Anthony writes that

A couple of our larger winery clients, who consistently buy and sell in multiple truckload volumes, are putting all bulk wine purchasing and sales on hold until they understand the full effects of the current situation.

Due to market uncertainty, some boutique wineries are pulling back from active bulk wine negotiations. One such customer from Santa Barbara County told me that their already past-due distributors have informed them that, due to the frightening rate at which restaurants are closing their doors, they do not know when, or if, they will be able to pay their bills.

Uncertainty about the future and concern about counter-party risk are not limited to the bulk wine trade and not completely unexpected in turbulent times. The existence of so many known unknowns increases risks and makes actors up and down the supply chain hesitant to commit to future endeavors.

The wine business is particularly  susceptible to these problems because it is so much dependent on time. Grape vines are not annual crops that you can switch back and forth easily from season to season. Wine is made just once a year and you have to live with what and how much you’ve produced.  When current decisions are necessarily locked in for an extended period of time, it compounds the risk and these are risky times.

The Curse of the Unknown Unknowns

What next? The global coronavirus pandemic has pushed us into the real of unknown unknows — factors that we don’t really know that we don’t know.  They say that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. But they are wrong.

So it is no wonder that the stock market’s “fear index” set a new record last week. With a highly interconnected global economy subject to uncertainty on so many levels, it is impossible to really know what could happen next and how severe its impact might be. No wonder investors sold off stocks, bonds, and commodities last week and rushed to cash and Treasury bills, sending short term interest rates below zero.

Many analysts and policy-makers under-estimated both the public health and economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis in its early days. A few are still in denial. For the rest of us, it is important to accept the risks, unknowns, and knowledge that many forces are beyond our control. And then, cautiously, to move ahead.

4 responses

  1. Thanks Mike. The wealth effect and recession economics intersect in a complex manner with wine drinking demographics. Core wine drinkers have higher incomes, more wealth, higher education levels and skew strongly towards white collar and professional jobs compared to rest of the population. This has cushioned wine demand against both ordinary recessions in recent times and growing inequality. What’s your take on the differential impacts by job category in the Covid19 recession? On one hand lots of layoffs in low/middle income gig and service jobs; on the other, how many mid/upper income professional/white collar jobs can be done from home.

    The 2008-9 recession impacted wine more strongly than the previous two because of a wealth effect on wine demographics, IMHO. The Covid19 recession is clearly going to have a wealth impact. And my guess is that impact is much stronger among the demographics that core wine consumers inhabit, because (sadly and unfairly) most Americans outside those demographics have little wealth other than their homes. But at least in the case of the stock market, a large part of this evaporated wealth was built in the last 2-3 years. That’s different from 2008, which came after a bull run (with one big hiccup) of 15 years. What’s the evidence on how fast consumers change their spending upward with increases in wealth, and downward with decreases?

  2. great post. I’dd totally forgotten about Rumsfeld and the idea of “known-knowns and known-unknowns” bit.

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